Only Connect – Reading and Writing Builds Empathy

So much pain and despair in the world, so much divisiveness.
It is tempting to plunge into easy answers, to see the world filled with simple
binaries – good and bad. But to do so robs us of the nuance that every
situation is steeped in.
When faced with the death of a friend or a parent, when
faced with the horrors of terrorism and oppression and violence of all stripes,
I find myself returning to the page, to the book. Not to avoid the pain of the
world, but to understand it better. Writing and reading are empathetic acts. We
must wear the clothes of others, we must try to see from within their lives,
experience their childhood loneliness, their adult alienation, and also the
propulsion of their first love and their delight in small children. In doing
so, we remind ourselves that things are not simple, that people are not all
good or all evil.
James Baldwin wrote: “You think your pain and your
heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It
was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very
things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever
been alive.”

These acts of empathy are like lifting weights. With
practice the muscle of our heart becomes stronger, more able to love, to
forgive, to imagine the despair and joy of another. That empathy makes our
characters stronger and our stories more believable, but more importantly, that
empathy makes us more human. This week, seek out stories and poems from
cultures unlike your own; read deeply and widely, write deeply and widely to
grow your heart.

And because I am a poet, I’d like to share a poem that has increased my empathy over the years, one that I return to when the world feels overwhelming:

             ~ by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.


Write on, friends.
Take care,

1 thought on “Only Connect – Reading and Writing Builds Empathy”

  1. Thank you, Erin. I tried to talk about books and empathy on my blog this week, but you did it more eloquently.

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